The Seven Deadly Grammar / Punctuation Sins

When I taught a composition class this summer, I was reminded of all of the common mistakes I see in spelling (written about here), grammar, and punctuation.  I try to teach my students about commas, and I make constant marks on their papers for the same grammar issues, but it never sinks in.  That’s okay.  I can vent about it on my blog.  Here are the common grammar and punctuation problems.


1. Comma Splices

This is an issue I see over and over in my students’ papers.  And, I explain it over and over.  Basically, a comma splice occurs when you take two independent clauses and stick them together without a conjunction.  In plain English?  If you have two complete sentences, do not connect them with a comma.  Use a comma in conjunction with a FANBOY: For, And, Nor, But, Or, Yet, or So.

2. The Oxford Comma

This is the last comma in a series that comes just before “and.”  If you are in newspaper writing, this rule doesn’t apply to you.  However, if you are in my class, it does.  The best example of the Oxford comma’s worth is this:  Here come the strippers, JFK and Stalin.  Okay, so are you saying that JFK and Stalin are strippers?  No.  Better:  Here come the strippers, JFK, and Stalin.  Now we have all three of them separately.

There’s a great cartoon of this, complete with drawings of JFK and Stalin dressed as strippers, but I’m not going to put it on here because of copyright issues.  You can see it here.

3. Who and Whom

Here’s the easiest way to remember this: only use “whom” when it comes before a pronoun.  Pronouns are: you, I, they, he, she, it, we, etc.  Example: To Whom It May Concern.

4. Dangling Modifiers

This involves an introductory clause.  Here’s an example of a dangling modifier.  “Despite her obvious lack of style, the dog fitted nicely into Sophie’s purse.”  The introductory statement is “despite her obvious lack of style.”  However, what follows that statement is “the dog.”  So, does the dog lack style or does Sophie, the person carrying the dog, lack style?  This is a dangling modifier because I meant to say that the person carrying the dog lacked style, but instead, by putting “the dog” directly after the introductory clause, I modified “the dog” as the one lacking style.  Make sense?

5. Parallel Verbs

When using several verbs in the same sentence, one must make sure they all appear in the same tense.  Here’s an example of what not to do:  “I like to go skiing, sky dive, and jumped on the trampoline.”  There are three different verb forms here.  They are not parallel.  Instead, say this: “I like to ski, sky dive, and jump on the trampoline.”  Or you could use the gerunds: “I like skiing, skydiving, and jumping on the trampoline.”  That’s how to make your verbs parallel, but only say the above sentence, of course, if you like to do all of those things.  Personally, I only like doing one of those things, I’ve never done the other, and, well, I used to like the last one until I got old and my body started hurting all of the time.

6.  Past Tense = –ed.

I often get student papers that say something like, “As you have probably notice, I need to improve my handwriting.”  I did notice, but I also noticeD that you forgot to put a “D” at the end of “notice.”  It is past tense, therefore, it needs a D!

7.  Fragments

A sentence is not complete unless it has a subject and a verb.  This is something my third grader is working on identifying, so college freshman should have this down by now.  Yet, occasionally, I see a lone fragment just hanging out by itself.  I pound this truth of writing into my students, and then I inform them that if they become famous writers, they can ignore this rule.  People like John Updike, Saul Bellow, and Joyce Carol Oates have ignored it.  Hey, even I ignore it sometimes on my blog, and probably in this post.  Sometimes it’s fun to use fragments.  They add style.  And emphasis.  And, hey…I think I just did it again.  Right?  Right.

So, do you have any grammar or punctuation pet peeves?  Feel free to share them!

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53 thoughts on “The Seven Deadly Grammar / Punctuation Sins

Add yours

  1. Bravo! This is awesome. My biggest pet peeves are people who do not know the difference between their/there/they’re, two/too/to, are/our and were/where. Also, when people say anyways rather than anyway. I have tried explaining this one to many people and they all think I’m being too picky!

    Ooohhh, two more I just thought of… irregardless is NOT a word and when someone asks, “how are you doing?” and you reply, “I’m doing good.” That is technically incorrect. You should answer, “I am well” or great, or excellent. The ONLY time you can “do good” is when you are doing an act of charity!

    1. Thank you! I love all of your examples. But I must confess, I’m guilty of the “I’m doing good” even though I know it is grammatically incorrect. I tend to sometimes go by the idea that grammar and usage is constantly changing, so I can change with it.

      1. In Emily’s defense, she usually IS doing “good.” I have benefited from her goodness for years. I fear I sound snooty when I say “I am well” because it’s so uncommon. My biggest pet peeve, however, is “I SEEN (fill in the blank).” Thanks for the reminders. We should all have to retake English 1010 every 10 years just like a tetanus booster.

  2. lie and lay. bring and take (take is hardly ever mentioned any more). in and into (the weather channel folks never heard about the former). Perhaps you had better not get me started! Fun post!

  3. As a proofreader and editor I often see horrible things that make me shudder. In England, we often have a problem with people extending contractions incorrectly – eg ‘I should’ve gone out’ morphs into ‘I should of gone out’. It’s probably down to pronunciation – the ‘ov’ sound replacing ‘av’. Another pet peeve is incorrectly placing apostrophes. I wish people just wouldn’t put any in if they are not sure rather than do things like ‘apple’s’ etc. Glad to see I am not the only one who gets steamed up about this!

  4. One thing I have noticed is that the “ly” adverbs are going away. People rarely seem to use them anymore. For example, someone defending their opinions may say, “I think different than you.” I see it all of the time. And that is another thing. People leave out filler words. My previous sentence usually would read, “I see it all the time.” What do you think is the reason we are losing our ability to use adverbs? Have you noticed it too?

    1. That one drives me nuts! Sometimes I correct people, but most of the time I just smile and dig my fingernails into my palms. I am not sure why we are forgetting those important words! I wonder if someday that will just be the norm and gain acceptance.

  5. One of my pet peeves is the construct, “The reason [I did x] is because [y]”. It should be either “The reason [I did x] is [y]” or “[I did x] because [y]”. Not both!

  6. My biggest grammar pet peeves are listed above but I would add electronic messaging acronyms. Our youth can’t write or spell because they use this too much. I see it with adults as well. I have been teaching my son that if he is sending a text or email or Facebook message to his friends, fine. But when he is sending a text or emailing me or one of his teachers, or he is posting something where he is attempting an intellectual statement, he is to write it in proper English. This also includes capitalization.

      1. I completely agree. No TXTing language in formal papers or interactions with adults! My purple pen ran out, so this last year I used light blue, but I did have a class request red. Go figure! I told them I just buy whatever I find on sale at the store.

  7. This is a great post for English teachers! Teaching grammar is so difficult. I like to try to teach it in context of an assignment instead of in isolation, but I’m still working on getting it to sink in. Thanks for some great, easily relatable examples.

  8. My first job out of college was as a proofreader and then a copy editor. That is where I learned that English majors know little about grammar and writing conventions (I don’t use the word rules). When I came to work for the English dept, I was aghast at what some of the English profs did not know about punctuation, capitalization, etc. However, I would not write a column on my pet peeves because I know I would inevitably make a mistake that someone could call me on. (Think of Lynne Truss in Eat, Shoots and Leaves–she was taken apart by writers at both the NYTs and The New Yorker for errors in her grammar book). I have already found several things I consider errors on this blog, but I won’t point them out because then I would come across as an intolerable know-it-all. 😉

    1. It’s true. You would think that every English major would have to take grammar and usage and editing classes, but they don’t. I am glad that my undergraduate degree required this. Chicago became my best friend! And I know there are mistakes. I don’t consider my blog to be an academic place, but a place where I can let my hair down and just write and blunder along. It’s liberating.

  9. Lack of commas and semi colons absolutely bugs me; especially when people write very long sentences without them. I am also irritated by misuse of small and capital letters, as well as those pesky times when people forget to add a full stop at the end of the sentence.
    Nice post, by the way. Keep up the good work.
    I was wondering, though, why you leave two spaces after a full stop.

  10. Comma splices are my number one pet peeve. But another is not knowing the difference between “well” and “good”. Everyday I hear people saying, “I’m doing good.” And I always think, “No, you’re not. But maybe you’re doing well.” “Good” is not an adverb!! Here’s the proof: “good” has a comparative and superlative form; “well” does not. Thanks for a great post.

    1. Thanks for reading, Ariel. As I explained above, I’m guilty of saying that I’m good, but I just don’t care about that one enough to change. Sometimes I switch it up a little and say that I’m fine. 🙂

  11. Oh, by the way! I have problems with prepositions. Would you mind writing a post about them? They are my pet peeves! I consider prepositions as little devil words. Looking forward to it! Thanks 😀

  12. It’s important for your students to know the difference between casual and formal communication. It’s great that you make it important because who else will if not an English teacher? We can break grammar rules in casual communications, but we should learn the rules so we can play by them in the necessary forums. If your students have to type a memo for a job or send an email to their boss they will be happy they listened to you! I know I break grammar rules all of the time, often intentionally, but I try hard to follow them when I think the reader deserves a certain level of respect.

  13. two of my biggest issues are usgae of ‘than’ & ‘then’ and ‘its’ & ‘it’s’. I hate to admit it but at times, the former one still haunts me

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